Putting the Puzzle Together

    A jigsaw puzzle is a picture cut into irregularly shaped pieces. So are your MBA applications. The admissions people already have some of the pieces: Your GMAT, GPA, transcripts, usually a resume. The application essays, however, are the missing pieces you supply to complete the picture. And you need to view each application as a different puzzle presenting the same final picture — you.

    How do you do that? Take each application and decide what aspects of your experience best answers each question. You want the different essays to complement each other with minimal duplication. Doing so will produce a more interesting, complete, and vivid picture of you.

    In painting this picture, you may want to address subtle stereotypes and weak points in your record. Did you do poorly on the GMAT quantitative section? Were you an English major who worked in sales? Then make sure to write about a quantitatively demanding assignment that you handled well. Are you an engineer? Did you do poorly on the verbal section? Then show your social and communications skills by discussing your tutoring background or sales successes. In any case, you don't have to call attention to the stereotype or weakness, just provide evidence that rebuts it.

    Common Application Questions

    1. What are your professional goals and how will an MBA from First Choice B-School help you achieve them?

    To further bring out your experiences and add pieces to the jigsaw puzzle that is you, tie your future to your past with this school's program: Show how your aspirations stem from past experience and then discuss how the school's program will enable you to achieve your goals. Use this essay to bring out elements of your experience not discussed elsewhere and reflect back on what you liked and disliked. Then demonstrate knowledge of the school's program while showing how it is the perfect bridge between the past and the future.

    In discussing the school's program, please include specifics and don't use the same essay for all the schools. If you do, your essay will blend into the monotonous blur of flowery compliments and platitudes about "exciting (or quiet) location, top faculty, outstanding reputation, and diverse student body from which I can learn so much as I too contribute." They don't need you to tell them how wonderful they are. If they weren't wonderful, you wouldn't be applying in droves.

    Write about the school's special features. If one of the professors is an expert in the area in which you are particularly interested, mention that you would like to study with him or her. If this school has unusual opportunities or programs that appeal to you, discuss how they will help you to achieve your goals. Show that the school has a unique appeal to you.

    When revealing your goals and plans for the future, be realistic. Demonstrate an understanding of typical career paths in your field. For example, unless you have some very responsible position now, you can't expect to manage a multi-billion dollar portfolio upon graduation. But you may plan to be an analyst upon graduation and after a few years manage increasingly large portfolios, perhaps specializing in an area of particular interest. If you have a long-term goal that even you acknowledge is a long shot, you can still discuss it, but I suggest you refer to it as a dream (dreams are great!) and also discuss some down-to-earth goals — goals you are likely to achieve as a result of your past experiences and the MBA you hope to receive from First Choice B-School.

    2. What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of and why?

    You can answer this question with a personal or professional achievement. If you are asked for more than one accomplishment, I recommend giving professional and non-professional examples. While you can certainly mention winning an award or honor if applicable, the essay focuses on what you did and why you consider it an accomplishment. What made it difficult? Why are you proud of it?

    Your accomplishment should reflect the qualities valued by MBA programs — leadership, team work, initiative, communications or social skills, analytical ability, persistence — though it does not have to reflect all of them. Ideally the readers should be able to conclude that you have these qualities after reading about the difficulties you overcame without you having to tell them explicitly that your accomplishment required those attributes.

    3. Discuss an ethical dilemma you faced and how you dealt with it.

    Probably the most troublesome question. Let's first review the nature of a dilemma. According to Webster, a dilemma is a "situation involving choice between equally unsatisfactory alternatives." No obvious or right solution exists for a dilemma. Every choice has undesirable consequences.

    The first step in approaching this question is choosing a situation to discuss. Were you ever asked to do anything on the job that you felt was unethical, but where refusal to act would cost you your job? Were you ever asked to withhold information damaging to a client? Did a colleague tell you in confidence something that would be very harmful or helpful to your employer? Did you ever face a situation where following the rules would have unintended, and possibly unconscionable, consequences? Any of these situations represents an ethical dilemma.

    After you choose the situation, your first step in writing your response is to describe it and briefly paint a picture of the pressures that surrounded the dilemma or the history that led up to it. Then describe the pros and cons of the options you faced. If the question calls for it, discuss how you resolved your dilemma. Conclude either with the lessons you learned from facing this situation or your opinion today of your actions then.

    4. Discuss a failure and what you learned from the experience.

    Be honest. When did you really blow it? What did you learn from the experience? How have you changed as a result?

    Open by describing the situation and giving a brief picture of the scene or background. Then discuss your reaction when you realized that you had made a BIG mistake. What did you do to recover from the failure? Have you handled a similar situation successfully? Bring evidence, like better grades, promotions, or increasing responsibility, to prove that you really changed your ways and turned failure into success.

    As I indicated above, the key to answering this question is candor and authenticity. Admissions people read thousands of essays. They can spot a fake "failure" from a mile away, and it irritates them. On the other hand, an honest essay telling a good story and showing growth engages and informs. It is exactly what they want to read.

    So far Accepted's MBA section has emphasized content, but of course, persuasive writing requires good style, grammar, vocabulary, usage, etc. You know, those nit-picky details that most people prefer not to think about. Well if you prefer to continue not thinking about them or if you don't think you know enough about them to ensure good writing, visit Accepted's review and editing service. If you want a quick brush-up on writing fundamentals, visit Ten Tips for Better Writing

    By Linda Abraham, Founder and President of Accepted

    For information on how Accepted can help you, please see our MBA admissions consulting and application services.

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